Home / Opinion / Narendra Modi’s foreign travel not to blame

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have fulfilled his predecessor Manmohan Singh’s wish and had breakfast in Kabul, lunch in Lahore and dinner at home in Delhi (even if he reversed the intended order). But don’t you know, Delhi is not his home. I also hear that he has become eligible to open an NRI (non-resident Indian) bank account. And rumour has it that he received an invitation to the next Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference.

You’ve probably heard some variation of these poor jokes about the prime minister over the past year and a half. It has become a common refrain among critics on social media and in the country’s newspaper opinion pages that Modi spends far too much time outside the country while neglecting his domestic responsibilities. Even the Financial Times recently decided to pile on, reporting that investors were tired of Modi “spending too much time abroad while the domestic economy is allowed to drift". To some extent, the perception is an outcome of the high-visibility diaspora events in which the prime minister participates on his foreign travels—from Madison Square Garden to Wembley Stadium—as well as his penchant for showmanship, whether attempting archery in Mongolia or dropping in for the birthday of Nawaz Sharif, his Pakistani counterpart.

But the line of criticism that the prime minister’s foreign jaunts are somehow responsible for his domestic shortcomings is misplaced. For one thing, Modi’s travel has not been particularly inordinate by the standards of his counterparts in other countries—or even his predecessor. In 2015, he visited 25 countries and spent a total of 53 days travelling abroad. By comparison, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—like Modi, a relatively young leader believed to have brought diplomatic vigour to his office—visited 23 countries, including Jamaica, Ukraine and Jordan, and spent 58 days on tour. China’s President Xi Jinping was no slouch either, managing visits to 14 countries over 42 days this year, including some as far afield as Zimbabwe and Belarus. To draw another comparison, during the first year of his second term as prime minister, Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh travelled for 47 days to 12 countries. Basically, Modi’s busy travel schedule in 2015—which still kept him at home roughly 85% of the time—is no longer particularly out of the ordinary for the leader of a major state.

At the same time, visits abroad by a national leader are not what they once were. The increased ease of air travel has made foreign touring not only more regular but generally more mundane and less time-consuming. When Jawaharlal Nehru first visited the US as prime minister in 1949, he spent three weeks touring the country, according to historian Ramachandra Guha, “delivering a speech a day" including to “a crowd of 10,000 at the University of California at Berkeley." Not every foreign visit by an Indian prime minister now carries the same novelty value, and not every trip can be considered particularly memorable or historic. But neither do individual visits involve the lengthy commitments of time and effort that they once did.

Critics also forget that it is possible now to govern while on the road. Cabinet colleagues and senior bureaucrats are just a phone call away. Major decisions can be made in Air India One or in hotel suites just as easily as in Race Course Road or in South Block. In an era of globe-trotting business travellers and live media reports via satellite feeds, the notion that good governance requires being chained to one’s desk seems terribly outdated.

Finally, certain foreign engagements are now locked into the calendars of every major leader. Barring a natural disaster or national emergency, few world leaders fail to show up at major summits to which they are invited, whether the G-20 or BRICS or East Asia Summits. Other meetings, such as the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) or the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) or Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) may not be mandatory, but the absence of an Indian leader is noted. And on far too many occasions in recent years, India has failed to show up and make its voice heard at major multilateral venues.

None of this takes into consideration the real, tangible outcomes that international visits occasionally deliver, from the rapid rise in greenfield foreign direct investment and unprecedented foreign military sales to the possibility—however remote—of more normal relations with Pakistan. Critics can—and should—question the prime minister’s management of domestic affairs to date, including his handling of important legislation. Had the goods and services tax and land acquisition bills been passed by Parliament in his first year, they would have added diplomatic value by greatly enhancing Modi’s international reputation as a reformer. Critics should also certainly examine the real added value to the country of his foreign visits, although this is somewhat difficult given that many outcomes will take months or years to make themselves felt. But to suggest that active diplomacy is, in and of itself, the cause of some kind of governance deficit, or responsible for Modi neglecting domestic policy, or somehow unwarranted or frivolous, is completely misguided. The days of frequent flying prime ministers are here with us to stay.

Dhruva Jaishankar is a fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington and a visiting fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

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